Pocketing what makes the The Witchfinders special, Victoria Walker avoids ducking issues.
While I can’t claim I found the plot of The Witchfinders to be entirely surprising, I can say that I think, thus far, it is my favourite episode of the series. Joy Wilkinson has put together a marvellously creepy and grounded episode.
One of the first things I noticed about the episode was the costuming and aesthetic. I have a passing interest in fashion history, and while I can’t speak too generally about the historical accuracy of the costumes, I can say that they definitely appreciated who the characters were when the costumes were designed. I found myself with a big grin on my face whenever Mistress Savage was on screen, just simply for her costuming. That and the various shots of bare trees with the decidedly muted color-palette definitely created the dour aesthetic the episode required. However, I do have one point I would like to raise, while it is not necessarily criticism. When the Doctor attempts to connect with Mistress Savage, before being put on the ducking stool, she makes a comment about women not having pockets. I’ve been telling this to everyone that will listen, but women of that period would have had pockets, and rather large ones at that. They were tied around the waist under the petticoats and skirt and could be accessed through slits in the sides of the skirt. It strikes me as odd that this particular piece of feminist dialogue was used in this particular episode. Especially when such pains were taken over the costuming generally, it was obvious they had someone who knew something working somewhere on this episode. I shall refrain from making this a criticism of the episode, as I am sure someone could probably come up with some satisfactory explanation for the line.
It is simply impossible to talk about this episode without talking about Alan Cumming’s portrayal of King James I. He was a sheer delight, just an absolute joy to have on screen. I took the liberty to have a brief look into how accurate this portrayal of him likely is and, putting aside the fact that King James probably didn’t stalk around the Lancashire countryside in a mask, on a base level he seemed pretty faithful. I thought it good that they did decide to overplay his character somewhat, as he made for a generally commanding presence on screen. I will not comment on absolute accuracy, as there are those out there far more qualified than I. While he obviously didn’t seem like a particularly pleasant person, what with all the sexism and being a king and whatever, he was fun to watch. I did think at one point that perhaps he might have been the alien, but I much prefer the way this turned out.
It is interesting, considering we’ve had two other historicals this series, that this is the first time the Doctor has had any issues regarding her gender. A criticism I’ve had of the writing for Whittaker’s Doctor is the fact that there has been no defining feature that I can pick out in only her Doctor. She has played the Doctor very well, but I feel as though she has not been written her own part, more an extension of all the Doctors before her. This episode was the first time she has been forced to react entirely differently to how a male presenting counterpart would, and I think it was handled well. The large TARDIS crew has meant a detraction from the Doctor. I did hope this episode would cure the Sonic Screwdriver overuse that we’ve been seeing this series and was disappointed. The use of the device made me feel uneasy this episode, as there was the everpresent fear that everyone would turn on her. I liked that they didn’t until Mistress Savage needed to protect her own interests, as this reflects how witch hunts tend to go.
A lot of people have complained about the rush to introduce and solve the Morax problem. Personally, I think that as a point of resolution for the episode, it functioned fine. This didn’t feel like the Thijarians, where they could probably have just not been there. If I had found the rest of the episode to be padded, I might have liked for the Morax to have been introduced earlier, but as it stands, I’ve no quarrel with how they exist in this episode. The only issue I might take with it is the sheer volume of exposition we end up within the final quarter of the episode. It is unclear why this doesn’t bother me, especially given my earlier criticism of Chibnall for the same thing. Perhaps it is a result of better dialogue writing, or the exposition as an explanation, rather than a setup.